Set Free

a sermon for Reformation Sunday

John 8:31-36

If we had wandered into church 505 years ago today, on October 30, 1517, suffice it to say our experience would have been wildly different from our experience today, on a number of levels. And that would not be just because a half-millennium has gone by and humankind has made numerous technological and scientific developments since then (Hi there, Livestream crew!!) Some very basic things would seem foreign and bewildering.

For one, we would have heard nothing during worship in our own language. Everything that the priests would have said and read would have been in Latin, and by 1517 nobody was speaking Latin outside of some academic and church-related settings. We would have probably known on a general level what the priest was saying because someone at some point had explained it to us, and some of the repetitive parts we might be able to mouth along with, but overall it would still have been unintelligible to us, whether we were worshiping in Germany or France or Norway or England. In fact, there is a large probability that the priest himself would not have understood what he was saying. He was just repeating back verbatim what he had memorized in seminary.

The town church in Wittenberg, the congregation of which Luther and his family were members.

Secondly, we would not have received the wine at Holy Communion. We would have most likely just watched the priest up at the altar—and maybe even with his backs turned to us—drink from the chalice by himself. There were a variety of confusing theological reasons they did it this way, but essentially the priests would drink the wine on behalf of the people they served. Let me tell you, I’ve tried to use this approach with some of my kids’ Halloween candy and it doesn’t go over well. (“I am eating this Reeses Peanut Butter Cup for your own good.”). This practice was also already receiving a good deal of pushback by 1517 and about a hundred years before Czech man named Jan Hus had campaigned for letting everyone receive both elements, but he had been burned at the stake for it.

Another big difference we would have noticed between then and now is that there would have been nothing for us to sing. There was music, but it was something we, as worshipers in the pews, passively consumed rather something that we participated in ourselves. Music in the medieval church was mostly chanting, all Scripture-based, although there were some choral pieces that a designated choir would often sing on some occasions. But again, everything would have been sung in Latin and it was not really written in a style that would invite people to join. The music sounded nothing at all like the music people would have heard elsewhere in society, around their tables in their homes or in the public places where they gathered.

There would have been countless other differences, of course, between worship in at the start of the Reformation and worship in 2022, but those three things would have really caught our attention. They also would never have called up third graders and placed a Bible in their hands in front of everyone with the expectation they would read it. They wouldn’t have had people read the daily Scriptures from the lectern or hold a baptism during the worship service. They would have had beer and bratwurst after the worship service, for sure. We won’t be having beer today, but we will have lots of other German goodies. So I’m glad all the really important things stay the same!

Talking about these differences is not an attempt to slam the medieval church, or to act like we’ve got it all figured out now. We today aren’t any better people or more moral than they were. However, it is noteworthy that within just a few years at the beginning of the 1500s all of that began to change. For Martin Luther and the other reformers, the church had one main duty: to let the Word of God set people free. The church, primarily in its worship, has been given that sacred and vital task: to talk about God’s grace before and above anything else so that people could be free—free from their sin, free from their inherent inward focus, free from the harmful labels society had placed on them and most of all, free from their tendency to prove their own worth.

And as Martin Luther look out at the state of things around him, he realized that church  was more often than not getting in the way of that first and most important task. Whether it was from the outdated language that made worship inaccessible and mysterious, or the distance of the sacraments from the people that placed priests here and the people down here, or the hard to sing and peculiar music of worship, or a combination of all of it, the church was not doing its best. The Protestant Reformation was about so many more things, of course, but in the end Luther’s reforms ended up touching on all of those matters, and that is a large reason why so many churches have the type of worship we have today. The church exists to proclaim God’s Word, which is about a love that sets you and me and all people free.

That is the foundational issue in the conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, part of which we hear this morning. He encounters some Jews who had believed in him but who still apparently cling to this idea that their kinship to Abraham, their great ancestor, has kept them free from any kind of slavery.

Just as an aside, because it’s in the news these days, this Scripture is actually a good example of a passage that has been twisted to encourage anti-semitism to take root in Christian faith, even though it is not anti-semitic and was never meant to be read that way. There are several times, especially in John’s gospel, where Jesus’ words seem, to some, to be derogatory toward the Jews in a way that spurs Jesus’ followers to hate and persecute them. Martin Luther, in fact, for all the good he did for the Christian witness, also left a terrible legacy of hating the Jewish and the Jewish faith. That is never Jesus’ intent, not even here when his words seem to linger with a taste of derision. Jesus is not hating Jewish people, for he is a Jew himself, and we have a responsibility to denounce hate of anyone whenever we encounter it. Here he is just reminding them that God is present in himself, the Son of God, in a new way that completely reorients everyone’s relationship with God, even theirs.

I mean, these are people, after all, who had, in fact, been slaves at one point in their history. They seem to have forgotten that. Jesus comes to love us and make us all children of the same heavenly Father, Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white.

And so all of Luther’s reforms were pointed at that message, to center the worship and teaching of the church on grace. Everything about using the vernacular language, letting everyone share the chalice, and providing music that all could sing were all ways to get God’s love to the people where it was supposed to be.

It may be obvious to most how those first two things set people free, but that third one—the one about how the church uses music to proclaim the gospel—may seem less obvious to us or maybe so obvious that we actually take it for granted. Luther knew that group singing, as opposed to listening to someone perform a song like we do at a concert, was a fundamental way to join many people together as one, to help their faith take root in their hearts. Each person has a voice, no matter how “gifted” at singing they may be, and using that voice in concert with others gives us a basic way to practice our faith, because faith involves risk, it involves getting outside of yourself, and what is opening your mouth and trying to make a beautiful noise if not risk? And it’s more risky for some of us than others, but that’s the wonderful thing about it!

One of our members here has shared with me that several years ago in his mind he made a shift from thinking of Sunday mornings as going to church to attending worship. For him there is a distinction—going to church sounds passive, whereas attending worship sounds more participatory. Luther would have agreed, and he wrote hymns in order to increase our feeling of doing something, of literally leaning into one another during the act of worship and he often used the styles of music he was hearing out in public, in secular spaces.

I was listening the other day to a young immigrant who was raised in another culture—I am pretty sure it was a south Asian country—share what he finds to be the main hallmarks of American culture. The very first one he mentioned was hyperindividualism. American culture, he remarked, is so focused on the uniqueness of everyone, almost to a fault, that it’s like we’re afraid to be a part of a group. We always want to set ourselves apart from everyone else, which is actually what those Jewish leaders are doing in this morning’s text. This man’s birth culture, by contrast, was more about collectives. Your family, your village, was your identity.

Celebrating individuality may be important, but it can be overemphasized to the point it becomes a prison. The Word of God sets us free from that, too, joining us to one another in ways we can share our joys and our sufferings in deep and real ways. Worship and theology that makes the space for this, where participation trumps performance where our gathering feels more like community and less like a concert—is freeing in ways we often take for granted.

I know Kevin doesn’t like to hear himself talked about, but this is one way in which he has served us better than I think we realize. Over these 25 years he has reformed us, letting the Word of God set people free to use their gifts and bring us together. I remember one of the first Christmas Eves I was here he had a young Amelie Bice, who was probably 5 or 6 at the time, play the piano for the prelude. She was just a beginner. She plunked out “Amazing Grace” with one hand, which I assumed might have been the only song she had learned. It maybe wasn’t your typical Christmas Eve fanfare, but it was just one of many examples of how our music director Kevin has created a worship environment where we all enjoy making music to praise God. She had gifts to share, and Kevin encouraged it. Amelie is now a high school senior, by the way, and plays like a pro with both hands.

What a way to understand faith, and to have it modeled in worship! We go forth from here not to perform our faith for others in the world, as if they can see what virtuosos we consider ourselves to be, but to participate in the suffering and joy of the world. We go forth from here set free, our gifts and voices tuned to his grace so that we may use them in our service to others.

We go forth chosen not because we’re so good, but because God, who is good, has chosen us. We go as people who have heard in our language, who have tasted on our tongues, who have sung with our voices: we are justified by grace, apart from works of the law!

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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